A fine response to Stephen Hawking

Back in September last year, Professor Stephen Hawking, probably the world’s best known scientist, attracted front page headlines across the world by claiming in his book ‘The Grand Design’ to have ruled out God as the reason for the existence of the universe. Hawking argued that the law of gravity was all that was needed to bring the universe into being.

I am not aware of many intelligent responses to Hawking’s argument, but I did post a blog about a short response from Professor Misbah Deen. Hawking is a hugely influential scientist and atheist so it is a shame that not many Muslim scholars seem to have the training in the sciences to be able to respond to his arguments.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago I came across a very fine response to Hawking from John Lennox, a Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University (and a Christian) entitled ‘God and Stephen Hawking: Whose design is it anyway?

The book is quite short at just 96 pages and is very well argued. Here is a sample passage:

“Hawking’s faulty concept of God as a ‘God of the Gaps’ now has serious consequences. This ‘more science, therefore less God’ kind of thinking inevitably leads Hawking to make the mistake (frequently made by Richard Dawkins and others) of asking us to choose between God and science; or, in Hawking’s specific case, between God and the laws of physics. Talking about M-theory (his chosen candidate for a final unifying theory of physics), Hawking writes: ‘M-theory predicts that a great many universes were created out of nothing. Their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather, these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law.’

“A supernatural being or god is an agent who does something. In the case of the God of the Bible, he is a personal agent. Dismissing such an agent, Hawking ascribes creative power to physical law; but physical law is not an agent. Hawking is making a classic category mistake by confusing two entirely different kinds of entity: physical law and personal agency. The choice he sets before us is between false alternatives. He has confused two levels of explanation: agency and law. God is an explanation of the universe, but not the same type of explanation as that which is given by physics.

“Suppose, to make matters clearer, we replace the universe by a jet engine and then are asked to explain it. Shall we account for it by mentioning the personal agency of its inventor, Sir Frank Whittle? Or shall we follow Hawking: dismiss personal agency, and explain the jet engine by saying that it arose naturally from physical law?

“It is clearly nonsensical to ask people to choose between Frank Whittle and science as an explanation for the jet engine. For it is not a question of either/or. It is self-evident that we need both levels of explanation in order to give a complete description. It is also obvious that the scientific explanation neither conflicts nor competes with the agent explanation: they complement one another. It is the same with explanations of the universe: God does not conflict or compete with the laws of physics as an explanation. God is actually the ground of all explanation, in the sense that he is the cause in the first place of there being a world for the laws of physics to describe.” 

Lennox’s book is convincingly argued and I thought it was an improvement over his last book, God”s Undertaker: Has science buried God? – which I thought relied a bit too much on some rather questionable arguments from Intelligent Design proponents.

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11 Responses to A fine response to Stephen Hawking

  1. Hi Inayat, thank you for this post. It is very interesting. What Mr Lennox mentions here is surely an age-old argument for the case of God. I am not well versed with the various arguments on both sides but I am assuming here that there is a regular counter-debate to what Mr Lennox ascribes, by Atheists.

    I think the lack of response from Muslim scholars is probably due to the fact that Islam is a religion that does not provide a scientific or step-wise logical approach to argue for the existence of God. God’s existence is merely proved with our acknowledgement of our individual soul. Many verses of the Qu’ran mention that our path towards God or otherwise is only determined by Him and is essentially pre-ordained. It is in one’s soul to turn towards Him or not. As a result, Islamic scholarship is more concerned with the Law given to us by God, or Jurisprudence. Islam is therefore not merely a religion but a way of life for one to follow. I think over time there have been very few thesis or works written by Islamic scholars related to theology and the existence of God.

    Of course, I would love to hear any disagreements regarding this, and to what Mr Lennox mentions.

    • Amin says:

      You never heard of Mutazilah – they subjugated Quran and Hadith to Reason.
      Its just that Muslim Scholars long ago figured out that if you can prove god by logic you can disapprove him too.

      Early Muslim History is very interesting. It is only now-a-days Muslims are lagging behind in everything.

  2. 'Uthmān says:

    That’s an interesting passage. He makes a good point about the false dichotomy between agency and physical law. It’s a good spot, and probably not immediately obvious to the untrained mind.

    From an Islamic perspective, the Qur’an doesn’t spend a great deal of time addressing atheism, it not being a position worth refuting in any considerable depth. One verse which does stick out though which I feel is relevant here, is verse 35 from Surah at-Tur (The Mount), the meaning of which is:

    “Were they created of nothing, or were they themselves the creators?” [52:35]

    It would seem as though, in adopting atheism, one is also forced in some way or another to adopt one of these positions which the Qur’an mentions. Hawking’s position falls squarely into the first category. That’s also why we get theories such as the “self-creating” universe. Ever heard of that one? Such theories are always cleverly couched in (pseudo) intellectual vernacular, of course, but strip them to their core, and they are what they are. In it’s timeless wisdom, the Qur’an naturally doesn’t bother to refute either position. Their untenable nature is too obvious.

  3. KMH says:

    Professor Hawking gives a possible explantion for a universe to come into being without a creator – but it is not proven. Professor Lennox’s explantion is not proven either. If we are honest with ourselves we would all have to admit to being agnostic because, despite what we may personally believe, there is no actual proof one way or the other.

  4. ‘Uthman: ‘the Qur’an doesn’t spend a great deal of time addressing atheism, it not being a position worth refuting in any considerable depth.’

    That’s very possibly because atheism was not very widespread amongst the people that the Prophet Muhammad was living amongst, whereas polytheism was widespread. However, today, atheism is indeed widespread and its members include the most learned and distinguished people in our society. As the Qur’an calls on Muslims to proclaim the message of monotheism to all, that must include atheists too. That surely means that the arguments that atheists use to reject God should be worth seriously considering and responding to.

  5. Haqqie, Mujeeb says:

    Quran asks us for thinking…as the brain is the ultimate fact finder. it does not need to be a scholar. Everybody can do it and it needs a devoted inspiration to reach the reality. We have left Quran in the hands of handful Clerics. What Mr. Hawking and other atheist describe is a complete nonsense. The blunder they commit is that they are unable to distinguish between science and meta Science. They are the student of a Para Scientific phenomenon which is govern by Para Scientific Laws…they are confused people who are fighting on a false platform of denial of the Metaphysical phenomena those are still undetectable by our senses and science…………

  6. Sajjad says:

    Spontaneous generation of systems like universe & life is not possible without the existence of a supreme being. My argument in this matter is that “knowledge & power” are prerequisite for the origin of systems like universe & life, therefore a supreme being exists which is supreme in knowledge & power.

    The main inspiration of Stephen Hawking is Darwinian or atheistic concept of evolution, he understands that systems can evolve spontaneously out of nothing. This is where Mr. Hawking is wrong, we understand this universe & life as systems while evolution is a process (of bringing change). For every process, existence of system is prerequisite so how can one say that a process originated a system?

    ” Allah is He Who created seven heavens, and of the earth the like of them; the decree continues to descend among them, that you may know that Allah has power over all things and that Allah indeed encompasses all things in (His) knowledge. (Quran-e-Hakeem 65:12)”

  7. A says:

    Hawking may not be able to prove the non-existence of a higher being, but in order to obtain the simplest explanation for the current set of circumstances one need not hypothesise the existence of a non-observable being who isn’t governed by any physical laws. An “infinite energy” within an assumed finite space should result in an infinite stress-energy tensor and an infinite gravitational field at some point/area.

    • Sajjad says:

      In order to obtain the simplest explanation for the current set of circumstances, One need to understand the purpose of systems like universe & life. If we understand universe & life as systems (in scientific terms), we need to understand the existence of system designer or originator. It is not justified scientifically & logically that one refuse to consider the existence of a non-observable being who isn’t governed by any physical law. One should note that every physical law needs an originator/creator, one should note that there exists certain things in this universe which we cannot observe directly but we can only observe their effects, the effects themselves are the proof of the existence of that non-observable entity.
      I remember a question which was asked with my Imam, a person asked “Can we call God as thing?” Imam replied, Yes, but like Him there is nothing.

  8. Anon says:

    Br Abdullah Al andoluci has a few interesting arguments against a atheism on his blog

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